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How do survivor benefits work?

Nearly 6 million people receive survivor benefits — monthly Social Security payments to family members of a wage earner who has died. They typically go to the spouse, former spouse or children of someone who was eligible for Social Security benefits. In some circumstances, parents, grandchildren or stepchildren of a late worker may also qualify for survivor benefits.

In most cases, survivor benefits are based on the amount the deceased was receiving from Social Security at the time of death (or was entitled to receive if he or she died before filing for benefits). You can apply by phone at 800-772-1213 or by visiting your local Social Security office. You should do so as soon as possible after the death is reported to Social Security; survivor benefits are dated from the time you apply and are not retroactive to the time of death.

Most recipients are widows and widowers. They can collect survivor benefits from age 60 (50 if they are disabled), at rates ranging from 71.5 percent to 100 percent of the late spouse’s Social Security benefit, depending on the survivor’s age. There is an exception if you are caring for a child of the deceased who is under 16 or disabled; in this case there is no minimum age and the survivor benefit is 75 percent of the deceased’s Social Security payment.

Also potentially eligible for survivor benefits are:

  • Minor and disabled children. They can collect 75 percent of a late parent’s benefit. To be eligible for survivor benefits the child must be under 18 (or up to 19 and 2 months if they are still in high school full time) or have a disability dating from before they turned 22. Stepchildren and grandchildren may also qualify. In all cases, children must be unmarried to collect survivor benefits. 
  • Parents. Survivor benefits can go to parents age 62 or older who were financially dependent on a son or daughter who dies. The amount is 82.5 percent of the deceased’s benefit for one parent, 75 percent each for two. 
  • Ex-husbands and -wives. The divorced spouses of deceased workers can collect survivor benefits if the marriage lasted 10 years or more. The rules regarding age and parental status are largely the same as for widows and widowers. 

One note on those percentages above: Survivor benefits paid to widow(er)s, children and parents of a deceased wage earner are subject to the maximum family benefit — a cap on how much a family can get from Social Security on a single worker’s earnings record. If family members’ collective survivor benefits exceed the maximum, their individual payments will be reduced proportionately to meet the cap.

Keep in mind

  • If you are already drawing Social Security on your work record, you will receive survivor benefits only if they exceed your own payment. Social Security will pay the higher of the two benefit amounts.
  • Widowed spouses and former spouses who remarry before age 60 (50 if they are disabled) cannot collect survivor benefits. Eligibility resumes if the later marriage ends. There is no effect on eligibility if you remarry at 60 or older (50 or older if disabled). 
  • Other than the remarriage issue and the age parameters for children, there is no time limit on survivor benefits — they are payable for life. 

Published October 10, 2018

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